Lester Dent did exactly that. In fact, he wrote his first novel in just thirteen days.
You read that right. Thirteen days.
Over the course of his career, he wrote nearly 200 novel-length stories. He crammed the pages of pulp fiction magazines with stories cranked out under various pen names. During the Great Depression, while legions of writers were starving, he boasted that he made $18,000 a year with his writing. In today’s terms, that’s more than $250,000 a year.
He often wrote a book-length story every month, using a “master plot” formula of his own devising.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could get your hands on that top-secret recipe for success? You bet it would.
So here it is.
Introducing Lester Dent’s Master Fiction Plot
On the wall over his typewriter, Dent had tacked up four typewritten pages, which are now kept in a museum.
Dent claimed that he sold every single story he wrote using this formula. After he revealed this formula in 1936, he received 780 letters from aspiring writers who used it to write and sell their first stories.
Here’s what was on those four typewritten pages.
How the Master Fiction Plot Works
Before plotting out a story, Dent advises the writer to begin by brainstorming four different types of new ideas: the murder method (for mysteries), the villain’s goal, the locale, and the menace.
• Murder method. Detective stories made up the bulk of pulp fiction, and most murder victims were done in by shooting or stabbing. Dent emphasizes the importance of brainstorming new possibilities, going so far as to suggest poisonous scorpions or deadly germs. A different method or unusual circumstances are more likely to grab the reader’s interest.
• Villain’s goal. Typical pulp fiction villains are always after the same things: jewels, sunken treasure, loot from a bank robbery, etc. If you can have your villain pursuing something unusual, it will help set your story apart.
• Locale. Dent advocates setting your story in a place familiar to you, where you have lived or worked. But if you want to set your story somewhere more exotic, he recommends doing just enough research to convince the editor that you know the place. One trick he often used was sprinkling the dialogue with a few words in the local language, without explaining their meaning.
• Menace. Because pulp fiction plots depended on continuous action, some constant threat needs to hang around your hero “like a black cloud.”
You don’t have to come up with brand-new ideas for all four elements. But you do need at least one or two interesting new things.
Next, Divide Your Story into Four Parts
This is the most important part of the formula. Think of your story as being divided into four quarters. For a typical 6,000 word story, that means four equal parts of 1,500 words each.
Here’s what to put in each part of the story:
• Introduce the hero in the very first line, and immediately hit him with what Dent called “a fistful of trouble.” Entice the reader with a mystery, impose a dangerous menace, or present a problem that only the hero can solve.
• Show the hero trying to crack the mystery, vanquish the menace, or solve the problem.
• In the opening pages, introduce all of the other characters. Important: bring these characters onto the page already engaged in action.
• Because of the hero’s efforts, he winds up in a physical conflict near the end of this section.
• Finish this section with a complete twist in the plot. Make sure that it moves the story forward, and gives the hero a next step to pursue.
• Stop to review your story so far. Does it contain suspense? Is the hero in danger? Has everything so far happened logically?
• Pile more difficulties onto the hero.
• Show the hero struggling to overcome these difficulties.
• Introduce another physical conflict near the end of this section, different from the last one. If the previous conflict was a fist fight, make this one a sword fight, or a chase, or something else.
• End of this section with another plot twist.
• Again, pause to evaluate your story so far. Is it suspenseful? Is it logical? Is the menace growing heavier?
• Heap even more grief onto the hero. Show the hero continuing to fight back.
• The hero makes progress, and manages to corner the villain or another opponent in a vivid physical conflict. Again, make this a different kind of physical confrontation.
• End this section with a surprising plot twist, which traps the hero in the worst kind of jam.
• Does the story so far still have suspense? Is the menace getting even worse? Is everything still happening logically?
• Shovel even more difficulties onto the hero. Bury him in troubles.
• Go for an “all is lost” moment: he is held prisoner, framed for murder, his love interest is presumably dead, the villain is about to kill him, etc.
• The hero uses his own skills, abilities, or brawn to get himself out of trouble and defeat the villain.
• Any remaining mysteries are resolved during the final physical conflict.
• End with one last twist, perhaps a punch line, that leaves the reader with a warm feeling.
• One more time, review your story. Has the suspense held out all the way to the end? Has everything been explained? Did it all happen logically? Is the very last line satisfying?
Lester Dent’s Master Plot Works for Novels, Too
Although this formula was originally intended for writing pulp fiction, it works like gangbusters for any action-packed story, from thrillers to romantic suspense to certain science fiction and fantasy stories.
It’s also not a bad way to outline a novella or full-length novel. Just expand the formula. Each part of the story structure corresponds to about a quarter of the book.
In my Dru Jasper series (starting with It Happened One Doomsday), the first line of every book hints at the coming apocalypse. By the end of the first chapter, the heroes have been hit with “a fistful of trouble,” just as Dent recommends.
Throughout the first quarter of each book, the heroes struggle to deal with a worldwide threat. We quickly meet all of the other characters and wind up in an intense physical conflict, usually a fight or a car chase (or both). Before too long, we come to a plot twist that sends the story shooting off in an unexpected direction.
In the second quarter of the book, there are even greater difficulties, more action, another plot twist, and so on. Yet no reviewer has ever called my books formulaic. Dent’s master plot becomes invisible, because it simply makes it easier to figure out what should happen when.
The master plot is simple, universal, and it works. That’s why it has survived the better part of a century.
By the way, one of my favorite reviews came from Starburst Magazine, which called my debut novel “a fast and fun ride that keeps you entertained all the way through its unyielding mayhem.”
Unyielding mayhem. That’s a good way to put it.
Add Some Unyielding Mayhem to Your Next Story
Obviously, Lester Dent’s master plot isn’t suited to quiet, introspective, literary stories. It’s meant to create almost continuous suspense and action.
It’s fuelled by adrenaline: chases, fights, mysteries, and breathless edge-of-your-seat tension. It works because it keeps the reader hooked. You pound your hero with ever-greater trouble, and force him or her to battle all the way to a satisfying ending.
The next time you sit down to outline a story or book, try Lester Dent’s master plot. There are no guarantees that you’ll finish your novel in 13 days, but it’s worth a shot.
Are You Up for the Master Plot Challenge?
Can you write a short story (or plan out a novel) using Lester Dent’s master plot formula? Leave me a comment below or contact me.
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